I didn’t intend to lie—it just slipped out.
I’m not even a good liar. Every time I tell a fib, my ears get cold and tingly and I have to rub them. I’m not even kidding. Growing up, when my mother would question my sister Giselle and me about who made the mess with the toothpaste or forgot to take out the dog or ate three cupcakes and left the wrappers on the counter, she always said I gave myself away immediately by grabbing my ears. (Giselle, of course, was a spectacular liar. She was a spectacular everything.)
So I was all set to answer truthfully. The words were right there on my lips. No, actually, I couldn’t find a date for your wedding. I’m coming alone.
(Coming Alone: A Memoir of My Sex Life, by Claire French.)
“Because it’s no big deal if you don’t have a date. I just need to know for the head count.” My friend Elyse, the bride-to-be, had cornered me by the copy machine in the office of the elementary school where we both taught. Her expression was something between sympathetic (I’m sorry you’re still single as fuck) and gratified (thank God I found someone). “We’ll have a singles table, and there will be plenty of people at it. Maybe you’ll meet someone!”
Oh, God. The singles table.
I’d been relegated to the singles table enough times to know that it is nowhere I wanted to be on a Saturday night. Or any other night. Was there a more awkward place in the universe? I remembered the last wedding I’d attended solo. My table mates were an astonishing array of weird—one guy just wanted to tell me about the new sheets his mom recently put on his bed (Spiderman), another told me his safe word within five minutes (rutabaga), and a third bitched nonstop about how mad he was that his favorite character had just been killed on Game of Thrones (“Think about it: every scene you ever saw him in was a lie!”). Later, I’d caught the bouquet, and I’m not kidding when I tell you there was a collective sigh of relief among the crowd, and I actually heard someone, possibly my mother, say “Praise Jesus!”
I just couldn’t.
“Actually, I am going to bring a date,” I heard myself tell Elyse as I gathered my copies from the machine. My ears started to prickle and I clung to the stack of papers in my arms to avoid grabbing them.
I tried not to be offended at the shock in her tone. It’s not like I never went on dates. It’s just that most of them were complete duds. “Yes. I’ll get that RSVP card to you right away. Sorry it’s so late.”
“That’s OK. This is so great, Claire. I didn’t realize you were seeing anyone.” She walked with me out of the office and down the hall. Her fourth grade classroom was directly across from the art room, where I taught. Elyse and I had been pretty good friends at one time, but in the two years since she’d been dating her fiancé we hadn’t talked as much. I might be able to pull this off if she didn’t ask too many questions.
“Well, you’ve been busy with the wedding, and it really hasn’t been that long.” I moved quickly—the sooner I could duck into my room, the better. Elyse was notoriously chatty, and she loved to gossip.
“Like how long?”
“Like a couple months.”
“Wow! Good for you. How are things going?”
“Great!” I chirped too loudly. “Just great.”
“Is he cute?”
“What does he look like?”
“Uh, blond hair. Blue eyes. A little scruffy if he doesn’t shave.” Basically I’d just described my dream man, Ryan Gosling.
She lowered her voice. “Is he good in bed?”
“Fantastic.” (Coming Alone would be full of stories about Ryan and me. We were dynamite together.) Reaching the doorway to the art room just as the bell rang, I breathed a sigh of relief. “Have a good one!” With a wave of my hand, I scooted inside and shut the door behind me.
Immediately I dropped the stack of flyers on the closest table and rubbed my chilly ears. It’s not even like I was imagining that they were cold—they really were. I’d looked it up once, and the explanation was something about anxiety causing blood to drain from my face. That made sense to me, since lying did make me anxious. A lot of things made me anxious, though. I often wished I was more confident, but Giselle seemed to get all the mettle in the family. Maybe that’s why she was in New York City, living her dream on Broadway and I was still here in the city where we’d grown up, living a mile away from our parents and teaching art at the same elementary school we’d attended.
“God, how can you stand it? Don’t you ever want to get out of there?” my sister was fond of asking me.
Was it horrible that I didn’t?
It’s not that I didn’t have dreams, too—they were just simpler. Quieter. Less flashy. I wanted a family of my own. I wanted to inspire kids to create and appreciate art in their lives, to find beauty in unexpected places. And I wanted, some day, to see my own works of art in a gallery or at a festival or even for sale in a gift shop. But I was still working up the nerve to submit anywhere. Soon, though. Maybe.
“God, we’re so different,” Giselle always said. She lived out loud, craved attention and was good at getting it, and was never happier than when she was center stage in full costume and makeup. In high school, I’d been content to paint the scenery and work on the stage crew, wearing black so the audience wouldn’t see me and applauding Giselle from the darkened wings.
But I’d been happy there. Not everyone was cut out to be the star of the show.
While I readied supplies for the morning’s classes, I thought again about the date situation—actually now I had more than a date situation, I had a boyfriend situation. Crap. Did I know anyone I could ask that fit the description I’d given Elyse?
If you did, you wouldn’t be single, dumbass.
True. I frowned as I set out plastic containers of paint brushes on each table. Maybe I could pretend he’d gotten sick. I’d RSVP for two so Elyse wouldn’t put me at the singles table, but I’d show up alone and say he had a migraine or something.
Yes, that was it! Perfect plan.
Or it would have been if Elyse had kept her big mouth shut. Countless times throughout the day, teachers and office staff came up to me and said how they’d heard I had a hot new boyfriend and they couldn’t wait to meet him at the wedding. They also said things like “Finally, huh?” and “About time!”
On the drive home from work, I weighed the humiliation of showing up alone against the challenge of finding someone to play my boyfriend, and decided the humiliation might be worse. Seating arrangements aside, I was tired of being teased all the time about my single status. Did they think I didn’t want to meet someone? Did they think it was easy to watch my friends fall in love and get engaged while my prospects went from bad to worse? Did they know how hard it was to look at myself and wonder what was wrong with me that I was thirty and had never been in love? Giselle was only one year older but had been in love—or so she claimed—like fifty times already, starting from age fourteen. She’d even been engaged once. (Very, very briefly.)
It wasn’t like I hadn’t tried to meet someone. I went on more first dates than anyone I knew. I let everyone from my mother to my hairstylist to my yoga instructor set me up, and I’d tried all the popular dating apps.
I’d met some OK guys. But I’d never felt that thing—that pulse-quickening, breath-taking, Hallmark-channel thing. I knew it existed because I’d read about it in books and seen it in movies and even witnessed it in real life. Not with Giselle, of course. She was fickle as they come, and changed her mind about men as easily as she changed costumes. But my two closest friends, Jaime and Margot, were madly in love with their boyfriends, and Margot was already engaged. I saw what they had, and I didn’t want to settle for anything less. I believed in soul mates, and I wanted my own.
But where the fuck was he, already?
* * *
“I’m giving up,” I told Jaime that night at our weekly Wednesday Girls Night Out. It was just the two of us since Margot had moved up to her fiancé’s farm two hours north and only made it back to Detroit once or twice a month. “I’m going to die an old maid.”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous. If I can fall in love, anyone can. And look at Margot—engaged to a farmer, for fuck’s sake! These things happen when you least expect them.”
I nodded glumly. It was true that love had struck my two besties when they’d least expected it, but I didn’t have Jaime’s fiery personality or Margot’s elegant style. I felt like there were things about them that drew people in, traits I didn’t possess. They had that extra something, just like my sister did. I wasn’t insecure about my looks, but I did sometimes feel a bit bland compared to them.
Jaime was a sultry, curvy dark-haired bombshell, and Margot had that lithe, blond Grace Kelly beauty—I had a couple curves, my mother’s gray-green eyes, and thick healthy hair, but nothing about me was extraordinary. If we were ice cream flavors, Jaime would be something fun like Birthday Cake, Margot would be something classic like Pralines and Cream, and I’d be boring old vanilla bean. Nice and dependable, but blah. The safe thing you order when they’re out of your favorite.
“Is this about Elyse’s wedding?” Jaime asked accusingly, pulling her hair into a low ponytail.
Sighing, I propped an elbow on the bar and my forehead in my hands. “Kind of.”
“Still can’t find a date?”
“No. And Elyse cornered me about it today at work. I was just about to tell her I was coming alone when she mentioned the singles table.”
Jaime made a disgusted noise. “The singles table. I hope Margot doesn’t do that to anyone. God, weddings are the worst.”
I picked up my glass of cabernet and took a drink. Margot was getting married just before Valentine’s Day, yet another holiday to dread. “At least at Margot’s wedding, I’ll be at the head table. And I won’t need a date, since I’m a bridesmaid.”
“I don’t see why you have to go to this other wedding at all. You’re not even that close to Elyse anymore.”
I winced. “I know, but I’d feel bad. I have to go. And now it’s even worse because I told her I was bringing my boyfriend.”
Jaime choked on her martini and set the glass down on the bar so roughly it sloshed over the rim. “Your what?”
“My boyfriend. You know, the one who looks like Ryan Gosling and fucks like a rock star.”
“Excuse me?” She looked around, like she was waiting for the hidden cameraman to pop out. “What did I miss?”
I sighed and shook my head. “This is so dumb. I couldn’t bear the thought of the singles table, so I made up a boyfriend.”
Jaime burst out laughing.
“It’s not funny.” I gulped more wine. “What am I going to do?”
“Can’t you just make up a reason why he couldn’t be there?”
“That was my next plan, but Elyse told everyone about him and now I feel like I have to show up with someone or they’ll all know I lied.” Defeated, I slouched on my barstool. “Does Quinn know any hot, single guys with blond hair and blue eyes?”
“Hmm. I don’t think so. I’d have introduced you to him already.”
“Actually, I don’t even care if he’s single. I’m desperate. It’s just for one night, and I swear I won’t touch him. I don’t even care if he’s straight. Your brother have any cute gay friends I can borrow?”
“Wow, you are getting desperate.” Jaime started to giggle. “Want to borrow Quinn? He’s got blondish hair and blue eyes.”
I gasped. “Jaime, that’s genius!” For a second, all my problems were solved—and then I remembered why it wouldn’t work. “Oh, wait. Elyse met Quinn at my birthday dinner a couple years ago. Right when you first started dating, remember?”
“Oh yeah, the dinner that he invited himself to and pretended we were a couple.” Jaime laughed at the memory. “I wanted to kill him that night.”
“I know.” To the rest of us at the table it had been so obvious how good Quinn and Jaime could be together and how nuts he was about her, but she’d fought him every step of the way. Then there was Margot, who’d met her fiancé, Jack, when she was hired to do some marketing work for his farm—they couldn’t stand each other at first, but fell head over heels within a week. I was happy for all involved, I really was, but I had to wonder what I was doing wrong that I couldn’t find love when it seemed to fall from the sky for everyone close to me. I signaled the bartender for another glass of wine. “Why does this have to be so difficult? Am I trying too hard? Am I too picky? Is it my hair?”
Nervously, I gathered my long, dirty blond curls over one shoulder. I’d recently gone back to my natural color. “Yeah, does it wash me out? Do I look too pale? Too blah?”
She rolled her eyes. “Now you’re just being crazy. It’s not your hair. And I love you blond. Reminds me of when we were kids.”
My second glass of wine arrived and I took a big sip. “God, why can’t you just rent a boyfriend for a night like you can rent a movie?”
Jaime grinned over the rim of her martini glass. “Boyfriend On Demand?”
“Exactly!” I snapped my fingers. “You could just scroll through, pick the one that looks good, and he’s all yours for twenty-four hours. I’d even pay more for HD.”
I laughed. “Yeah.”
“Actually, I think you can rent a boyfriend. I read about it somewhere—it’s really popular in Japan.”
“Are you serious?” I sat up taller. “Do they have it here?”
She shrugged. “Maybe. But I don’t know how safe it is.”
“What’s it called? Do you remember?”
“No.” Jaime shrank back and looked at me like I was crazy. “You can’t seriously be considering hiring a strange man to be your date, Claire. You’re not that desperate.”
“I guess I’m not,” I said.
But my ears were tingling.
Two days later, I still didn’t have a date, and I decided to google it. (I’d like to mention that this was after drinking almost an entire bottle of wine while watching back-to-back holiday romances on the Hallmark Channel. I cannot be held responsible for my behavior after such an evening.) While the credits were still rolling on the second movie, I poured the last of the bottle into my glass and opened my laptop. I typed “rent a date” into the search box, took a sip for courage, and clicked.
I was immediately bombarded with tits and ass pics. Realizing my mistake, I specified I was looking for male companionship, hoped my eyeballs wouldn’t be assaulted with dick pics, and clicked again.
A bunch of sites came up, and the top result was called Hotties4Hire.com. After glancing over my shoulder as if I was scared of being caught (which was ridiculous, since I lived alone) and a big gulp of chianti, I opened the link.
Need a date for a special occasion but don’t have time to find one?
Tired of all the questions about why you’re still single?
Want a platonic companion for a limited time who will pretend to adore you?
Look no further.
Hire a hottie has a man for you!
I perked right up. It was like the site was made for me! The guys looked attractive and not too serial-killery, and there were plenty of testimonials from satisfied customers.
“Hotties for Hire was exactly what I needed to get through the company Christmas party! Ron was a true gentleman, and so hot!”
“I can’t say enough good things about Shemar! He was polite, attractive, and completely attentive all night!”
“Everyone was jealous of my Hottie at the wedding, and my ex almost fell over! I felt amazing all night long!”
The site was run by women, and they had Hotties in twenty-two states, Michigan included. THIS IS NOT A DATING SITE, they claimed. “If you’re looking for a committed relationship or sex, this site is not for you, but if all you need is a fantastic evening with someone safe, friendly, and best of all, HOT, then we can help!”
Yes! Help me, Hotties!
Five minutes later, I’d paid my $29.95 to have access to Hottie profiles in my area and frantically searched for one that looked like Ryan Gosling. It didn’t take me long to realize that the guys they used on the home page weren’t entirely representative of the actual stock, but I didn’t see anybody that looked like they just got out of the state penitentiary, either. Finally, I saw someone I thought might work—he had sandy hair, light eyes, a solid eight on a scale of one to ten, and his name was Fred.
According to his profile, Fred was a pilot and enjoyed traveling, meeting new people, and classic cars. He was six feet tall, thirty-one years old, and had never been married. He had two dozen five-chili-pepper ratings, and the comments were all positive. “So much fun!” said Lisa in Orlando. “An absolute doll,” gushed Jasmine in Phoenix. “Charming and sweet!” exclaimed Shelly in Buffalo. “And an awesome dancer!”
Orlando, Phoenix, and Buffalo? Wow, he really got around. Was that because he was a pilot? Where was home? Not that I needed to care. All I needed to worry about was that he showed up on time and pretended to like me, which I hoped wouldn’t be that hard of a job, as long as he was a better actor than I was.
For a hundred dollars an hour, he’d better be.
I took another gulp of wine and sent him a message via the site. Hello Fred, my name is Claire, and I’m looking for a date for a co-worker’s wedding the night of Friday, December 21st. Are you available? If so, would it be possible to meet for coffee first just to get to know each other a bit? Discuss the situation?
Right before I sent it, I had a little panic attack. This was totally insane, wasn’t it? Renting a man just to save face? What if he strangled me and stuffed my body in the trunk of his vintage Camaro or something?
Then I remembered the time I sat at the singles table and the guy next to me recited 369 digits of pi before asking me if I’d like to read his erotic Pokémon fanfic.
Thank you! Fred will get back to you soon!
I closed my laptop and sat there for a moment, trying to decide if I felt creepy and desperate or modern and edgy. There was nothing wrong with this, was there? After all, I was a woman of the new millennium! We weren’t bound by old-fashioned rules about dating like our mothers and grandmothers! And this wasn’t really dating, anyway. It was just…online shopping. For a human.
I felt a little queasy. But desperate times called for desperate measures, and a few hundred bucks would be a bargain if it shut everybody up and bought me a seat at a better table. Plus I’d spend an evening with a handsome date whose job it was to flatter me all night long. No one would ever know that I was paying him. At the end of the night, we’d go our separate ways, I’d tell everyone at work a breakup story that sounded plausible and definitely not my fault (Fred, you bastard), and that would be that.
What could go wrong?
* * *
At three o’clock in the morning, I awoke in a panic.
What the hell had I done? Now that the wine buzz had worn off, regret attacked me from all sides. I jumped out of bed and bolted for the stairs, but my pajama pants were too long and my heel slipped, and I ended up bumping down the entire flight on my butt.
At the bottom of the steps, I scrambled to my feet, hitched up my pants and ran for the couch. Frantically I opened my laptop and clicked on the browser. Damn you, chianti and Hallmark Channel! Was there a way to retrieve my message? Had he seen it yet? What would I do if he’d replied?
My heart pumped hard as the Hotties for Hire site loaded. I was still logged in and saw right away that I had a message from Fred.
Hey Claire, I am available on that date. Sure, we can meet for coffee ahead of time. I actually do that with every date I book. I just ask for a $100 nonrefundable deposit at that meeting, which will be applied to your balance, whatever that turns out to be. Let me know, thanks!
My hands shook as I tried to come up with a reply that didn’t make me sound pathetic.
Hi Fred, it looks like my boyfriend will be in town that weekend after all, so
No, that was ridiculous. Now I was making up a second fake boyfriend so that my original fake boyfriend wouldn’t think I was a loser? What on earth?
I tried again.
Hey Fred, turns out I can’t make it to the wedding. Sorry for the
No, that was stupid, too. What could have happened in the few hours since I’d messaged him that would prevent me from being able to attend?
I chewed the tip of one finger. Should I go through with it? I looked at his picture and read his message again. He was cute. And he sounded nice.
I can just meet him for coffee. What’s the harm in that? If it’s a disaster, I won’t book the date. I’d lose my hundred bucks, but at least I wouldn’t be stuck with him all night. And a coffee shop was a public place, so there’d be no strangling or dismembering or anything. Just a quick introduction and a brief chat about how things would go the night of the date. If we got along OK, I’d book him.
I sat up taller and typed a response.
Hey Fred, thanks for the reply. Could you meet me downtown at 5:00 pm on Wednesday the 19th? Great Lakes Coffee makes awesome lattes.
I took a breath and clicked send. Then I went back up to bed, rubbing my sore butt and wishing Boy-Meets-Girl wasn’t so complicated. Why couldn’t life be more like a storybook, where fairy godmothers granted wishes or handsome princes needed saving from shipwrecks or stable boys turned out to be the one?
* * *
Fred had replied that my suggested time and location for coffee worked for him, so after school on the 19th, I ran home, took my hair down from its messy bun, noticed I’d gotten paint on my shirt, hurried upstairs to change it, rushed back to the bathroom, re-applied my makeup, and scolded myself a million times for being so flustered.
He was just a guy, right? And this wasn’t a date; it was a business transaction. I didn’t have to meet his approval—he had to meet mine! But my stomach jittered nonstop on the drive downtown.
I parked in a lot off Woodward and took deep breaths of icy cold air as I made my way up the snowy street. Right before I pushed open the heavy glass door of Great Lakes Coffee, I took a second to look through it, hoping to spot where Fred was sitting. Nothing worse than walking into a crowded place and trying to find someone while everyone stares at you. It always made me feel like I’d forgotten to put pants on or something.
But the place was busy, and I wasn’t able to stand out there for long because people were behind me, rushing to get out of the cold. I held the door open for them, and once I was in, I stepped aside to remove my gloves and surreptitiously glance around. I didn’t see anyone who looked like Fred sitting on the stools at the counter, nor seated at any of the tables close to me. Hmm, maybe he’s running late, too. Or maybe he’s at a table in the back.
Hoping to appear relaxed, casual, and not at all desperate, I strolled toward the counter to order, allowing two people to go ahead of me in line since I wasn’t in a hurry. Desperate people hurried. After I ordered my lavender latte, I stood aside and waited, scanning the place again. Still no Fred. What would I do if he didn’t show?
When my coffee was ready, I spotted two empty stools at the end of the counter and figured I’d grab them, just in case he made it. Unfortunately, the couple who’d come in behind me had the same idea I did, and we moved for them at the exact same time. “Oh, go ahead,” I told them, backing off. “My…person isn’t here yet anyway.”
One more look around the shop. No Fred. My entire body drooped. Feeling dejected, I took my latte to a table at the back that had a couple open seats. I slipped out of my puffy white winter coat and hung it on the back of my chair, then I sat down and stared at the empty space across the table, feeling more than a little sorry for myself since it looked like I might be stood up by a date I was willing to pay for.
Maybe I was doomed—the stars were never going to align for me. Perhaps I was born under a black cloud.
After all, storybooks have curses, too.
I knew three things about Claire French within minutes of watching her walk through the coffee shop door.
One: She was a rule-follower. She didn’t go in the out door, up the down staircase, or beyond the No Trespassing sign. She didn’t jaywalk, speed, or cheat. She never parked in handicapped spots, always said yes when someone asked for a favor, and didn’t cut people off on the freeway. A genuinely good person. I also got the feeling she saw mostly good in others, too. I liked that, although it probably meant she trusted too easily. Forgave too soon. Got taken advantage of.
Two: She was a girlie girl. A romantic. Everything about her was soft and lovely and feminine, from her fuzzy pink sweater to her long, wavy hair to her puffy white coat and little knit hat. Her voice was warm and honey-sweet, even to strangers. I couldn’t smell her—and I wouldn’t—but I knew that if I did, it would be like when I was a kid and my grandmother used to make these treats out of marshmallows dipped in melted butter and rolled in cinnamon and sugar, then sealed up in crescent rolls. While those things were in the oven, the entire house smelled like you could eat it, like in a fairy tale.
I didn’t believe in fairy tales anymore, but I’d bet my life she did.
Three: She had no idea how beautiful she was.
Women like her never do.
Preorder on Amazon, iBooks, or Nook! Coming soon on Kobo, in paperback, and on Audible.